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Bibliobitch: Feeling Queasy with Humiliation

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Cover of Humiliation. Scratched gray diary with dented lock.Critic and poet Wayne Koestenbaum has written a new book that is not what I'd call a "feel-good read." I could call it some other things instead, like "queasy" or "discomfiting," or I could take Koestenbaum's sentiments and try to protect myself from the inherent humiliation of the written word by not writing anything about it at all. Except if I didn't write anything it would make for a very boring Bibliobitch post, so I guess I'll take a deep breath, aware that I'm risking exactly what this book discusses, and tell you a little bit about Koestenbaum's Humiliation.

In this book, part memoir, part cultural criticism, Koestenbaum sets out to explore the experience and the significance of humiliation. The book is written in "fugues": short segments, a paragraph or two, that reflect and build off of each other as the book progresses. It's an interesting and merciful choice, considering the content. You know that feeling when you're reading a particularly difficult (or particularly boring) book, and upon reaching the end of a chapter you feel relieved that at least that part's over and it's time to move on to something else? That's a feeling I experienced often while reading Humiliation, only it wasn't because I wasn't interested or because I couldn't comprehend his meaning—it was because the book is a series of descriptions and close-up examinations of the humiliation of individuals and groups, and in reading it, as Koestenbaum points out many times, I was implicated: I felt humiliated too. Koestenbaum writes, "I am tired, as any human must be, after a life spent avoiding humiliation and yet standing near its flame, enjoying the sparks, the heat, the paradoxical illumination."

Humiliation is in part about Koestenbaum's experiences as a gay man, as a Jewish man, and as a person with a body: someone who's been told that his biceps are puny and his ass is flat. He discusses the sometimes-pleasurable humiliation of sex in public bathrooms and the humiliation of repeatedly being told he looks like Woody Allen. The chapter "Eavesdropping on Elimination" is particularly powerful in its descriptions of the everyday humiliations that Koestenbaum has experienced and witnessed, because each experience is so relatable. He was hung by his belt loops from a doorstop by a bully. His book got a bad review. He watched someone else pee their pants. Peeing and vomiting and ejaculating are brought up over and over again, as a way for Koestenbaum to point out the shame that our culture inflicts upon people merely because we have bodies, and those bodies are different shapes and sizes and they sometimes release fluids.

Koestenbaum also discusses popular culture and the humiliation of being famous: he tours us through the spectacle of Liza Minelli and Michael Jackson, the debacle that was Alec Baldwin's voice message to his daughter, the penitence of a number of scandalized politicians, the absolute horror of that thankfully long-canceled show, The Swan. The list goes on. In each section, a new humiliation. It begins to feel like we're all surrounded by humiliated people all of the time, and it occurs to me that that is Koestenbaum's point.

This isn't a pleasant book (though it's sometimes darkly funny), because it doesn't feel good to read about feeling bad for 184 pages. But Koestenbaum's discussions of the most vulnerable moments of others and of himself can be both sharp and gentle, and this is clearly because he is all too aware of how humiliation feels, and he knows that the experience is universal. In our culture, people humiliate other people because of their race, or their gender, or who they like to sleep with, or how much they weigh. It's a terrible, disgusting thing, but Koestenbaum points out that when we bring others low, we bring ourselves low as well. Nobody wants to feel like they're nothing, and nobody should, but at some point, everyone will be humiliated, and that makes it a kind of awful equalizer. I'm not sure whether this is a helpful thing to point out.

Because Humiliation is a meditation and not a manifesto, Koestenbaum doesn't offer a solution, some way that we can keep ourselves and others from humiliation. But after reading about this universal feeling, one that the president and my next-door neighbor and the author himself all experience, and one that I am capable of inflicting, I felt that it was very important to be kind.

Previously: Dorianne Laux and the Poetry of the Everyday, Inside This Place Not of It Goes Inside Women's Prisons

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Comments

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Oh, interesting! I reviewed

Oh, interesting! I reviewed this book not too long ago for Lambda Literary, but I don't think it's up yet. I had mixed feelings about it. I felt that some bits of it were beautifully and wisely written, but then I thought that others fell a bit flat. I'm also not sure I buy his idea that we're all humiliated when we witness someone being humiliated or perpetrate humiliation on someone else... Or, as he argues, every time we write.

In a way, I felt he was trying to do something similar to what Foucault does (I think more convincingly) with power. That is, he's trying to suggest that humiliation is this diffuse thing that permeates humanity and human relationships and "operates" with something like a will of its own. The idea that power is operating between two people despite the fact that one comes from a place of relative privilege comes from Foucault. I think Koestenbaum tries to do something simliar here, with mixed results.

I'm curious what you made of his interest in the humiliation of powerful men? He suggested that, because women are oppressed relative to men, he was more interested in examining what happens when powerful men fall. But then, as you say, he also discusses Liza Minelli and other women. Was this borne of some sort of feminist sensibility? I'm not sure.

Great review :)

This review was really interesting and has piqued my curiosity; I haven't heard of this book until now but I will definitely look into reading it. Thanks for the heads up!